A battle is underway in the normally quiet Hudson Valley village of Kinderhook, N.Y., over three words: Truth be told.
The black vinyl letters in the artwork “Truth Be Told” measure 21 feet high and stretch some 160 feet across the facade of the 1929 red brick building that now serves as the School, a branch of Manhattan’s Jack Shainman Gallery.
For the space, the artist Nick Cave created “Truth Be Told,” intending to inspire a conversation about racial justice and policing in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, the Black man who died in May in police custody after Minneapolis officers pinned him to the ground for more than eight minutes, one of them with a knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck.
Mr. Cave got a conversation, but not exactly the one he wanted.
Instead, the debate around “Truth Be Told” has been about whether the text-based work is technically a sign or not, a seemingly minor distinction that has significant implications.
The Village of Kinderhook says it’s a sign, and hence in violation of local code, and wants it removed.
The dealer Jack Shainman and his attorney, William J. Better, say that it’s an artwork and is perfectly legal under the special use permit that the School was given in 2014, when it opened.
They have until Dec. 5 to appeal the decision, which they intend to do, unless, as Mr. Better said, “the village comes to its senses.”
Kinderhook’s mayor, Dale R. Leiser, doesn’t sound like he is changing his mind.
“The village’s position is that we’re going by our code, and New York State code,” Mr. Leiser said, adding that Mr. Shainman “didn’t have a permit. He got a use permit for banners, and this is totally different.”
A secondary concern was the vinyl material the letters were made of and “whether it’s flammable or not,” the mayor said. “We are concerned it’s covering windows and doors.”
The Building Department issued an order on Oct. 23 demanding the removal of the work and calling it “combustible.”
Mr. Shainman had submitted a proposal to the village on Aug. 13 for “Truth Be Told.” Permission wasn’t granted, and the two sides had a special Zoom meeting on Oct. 20.
“I naïvely thought I could just explain it and they’d agree,” said Mr. Shainman, who is liable for a $200 fine for each day the work remains in place after the order to remove it was issued. “They were saying it’s a sign, and it isn’t.”
The matter wasn’t resolved, but Mr. Shainman authorized the crew to put up “Truth Be Told” the next day anyway, and it was completed on Oct. 31.
“We’re good people, doing something we’re allowed to do,” Mr. Shainman said, adding that he felt he needed to support his artist, Mr. Cave.
“We’ve spent three and a half weeks mired in this,” Mr. Shainman added. “I feel like I’m stuck in a glue trap.”
Mr. Better’s reading of local code, he said, is that signs are defined as “an announcement, direction or advertisement, and this is none of those.”
The issue of the work’s flammability is “the ultimate red herring,” Mr. Better added, given that the vinyl material is “a 3M product that is regularly used on buildings across New York State.”
In his back-and-forth with the village, Mr. Better said he gave the example of “plastic Halloween decorations, infinitely more flammable, which are all over town.”
“If someone puts up ‘Seasons Greetings’ on their door for Christmas, would the village tell them to take it down? I think not.”
Mr. Better added, “Like any art, it makes people think.”
Thomas Danziger, a New York attorney who specializes in art law, said that the dispute was an example of a “huge problem”: the fact that “zoning regulations were not intended to address what is or is not a work of art.”
Mr. Danziger noted that “there are plenty of artists whose work is just words, like Lawrence Weiner and Barbara Kruger.”
For his part, Mr. Cave said that the village’s pushback on his work was “another indication of where people stand.”
He added that the piece is “about admitting the truth that one might otherwise lie about.”
Mr. Cave, who is based in Chicago, has spent his career addressing race and identity in his work, as with his famous “Soundsuits,” which are wearable, noisemaking costumes.
In 2016, he created “Until,” a massive installation at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, composed of thousands of objects addressing gun violence and the deaths of Black people in police custody.
Mr. Cave said that he feels “totally supported” by Mr. Shainman and that he would have been “really upset” if the work hadn’t gone up as planned.
“It’s an artwork,” he added. “It’s freedom of expression. It’s not complicated.”
Mr. Shainman said that he intends to keep “Truth Be Told” on view through Jan. 31.
The mayor, Mr. Leiser, said that the village did not have an issue with the School’s programming in general.
“Not at all,” he said. “Jack is a good man.”
But Mr. Leiser added, “There’s always protocol.”